“I suppose,” she began again, stoking the fire, “the reason I care so much about my friends is because I don’t have a great relationship with my family.”
We were sitting in a house with intermittent electricity, in a remote village in the highlands of Cameroon, on the tail end of a meandering dinner conversation. Expatriates like we were, I guess, are prone to wade into these deeps, thrown into intimacy not so much by immediate, obvious affinities as by the shared distance from home and the extremity of the circumstances. Self-disclosures are kick-started by the setting.
Heather was a Peace Corps worker that my housemates and I, in Cameroon to teach at a small Baptist seminary, had befriended over the previous months. When she started coming over to eat the American foods we tried (and often failed) to recreate and to watch episodes of The Office on our laptops, I recognized her as hungry for friendship, but I also didn’t think much of it. We each of us felt like strangers, to some extent, in this country. We each of us were primed for close relationships with people who thought like us and shared some of our home-bred tastes. If you’d asked us what we wanted for our remaining time overseas, I think “friendship” would have topped any of our lists. Yet Heather seemed to be saying that her hunger ran deeper, was closer to the heart of who she was, somehow. Friendship meant more to her, she felt, than it did to others. “I would do anything for my friends,” she went on. “I spend crazy amounts of money on them. I travel long distances to see them and plan reunions for us all the time. And I’m usually disappointed by how little they seem to return the effort.”
Looking at the outline of her downturned face in the diminishing light of our fireplace that night, I admired her for saying so.
In the years since then, I’ve also come to see my aspirations reflected in Heather’s confession. As I’ve grown more at ease owning up to my homosexuality, and particularly as I’ve undertaken to live a celibate life, I’ve recognized in myself a yawning hunger for friendships of an especially vulnerable, committed sort. I’ve looked to friends — particularly to friends who are fellow Christians — to be a kind of surrogate family for me. Lacking a spouse or children, I’ve tried to figure out how much, and how best, to rely on my friends for companionship, for the pleasure of conversation, and, not least, for an outlet for my need to make sacrifices, bear burdens, and give gifts to others.
Several years ago, when I came across a letter written by the poet W. H. Auden, himself a homosexual and an Anglican Christian, to his friend Elizabeth Mayer about his loneliness, I flinched at how eerily it seemed to mirror my hopes and fears: “There are days when the knowledge that there will never be a place which I can call home, that there will never be a person with whom I shall be one flesh, seems more than I can bear, and if it wasn’t for you, and a few — how few — like you, I don’t think I could.” Auden was fingering the wound of his singleness and alienation and, at the same time, declaring his hope that a few precious friendships could salve some of the sting. I knew precisely, down to the finest emotional tremor, what he meant.
One night a few years after that conversation with Heather, I was sitting in the faux-orange glow of a space heater, nursing an after-dinner drink at the home of a new acquaintance named Aidan. His wife had gone to bed early, and Aidan and I were sitting in the living room talking. I had recently moved to town and wasn’t in a position to disguise my need for friends. Nor, having published a book about being Christian, gay, and celibate, was I able to hide my complicated quest for genuine, albeit chaste, human closeness. Before I knew what was happening, I found myself telling Aidan about my fear of not feeling at home in my new job and in my new neighborhood, confiding in him my concern about growing older without a spouse and the attendant loneliness I already had a foretaste of. I don’t remember much of what we said that night, but I do remember one quiet moment when Aidan said simply, “I’d like to be a friend to you.” He said it plainly, without sentimentality or elaboration, but also, it seemed to me then and still seems in retrospect, with a sincerity that held out the promise of long-term loyalty. He didn’t know me much, nor I him, but his words carried weight nonetheless. I don’t recall thinking about Auden’s letter to Elizabeth Mayer as I walked home that night, but I might as well have: If it weren’t for Aidan and a few — how few — like him, I didn’t know how I’d be able to flourish at all.
There’s no question that the Christian tradition views friendship in the ways I’ve been describing: as a balm for the lonely, as a means for an exchange of burdens (“dying each other’s life, living each other’s death,” the “Inkling” Charles Williams once called it), as a way of offering spiritual assistance and sustenance to one another. Aelred of Rievaulx, a twelfth-century abbot and unofficial patron saint of friendship, went so far as to make the reciprocal disclosure of need a test of the genuineness of Christian friendship. “Those who claim that their lives should be such as to console no one and to be a burden or an occasion of grief to no one, who derive no joy from others’ success and inflict no bitterness on others with their own perversity, I would call not human beings but beasts,” he wrote in his famous dialogue On Spiritual Friendship. For Aelred, if you weren’t offering your pain to a friend, you probably weren’t enjoying an authentic friendship at all.
And yet we court misunderstanding if we treat friendship as ultimately about this kind of service and sacrifice, for also near the heart of many classic Christian treatments of friendship is the conviction that friendship is not finally about anything, not even mutual burden-bearing. It may heal some of our aches and meet some of our needs, but the healing and the need-meeting may be best thought of as side effects. Friendship doesn’t exist for the meeting of needs so much as the burden-bearing and loneliness-salving is a spinoff or byproduct of friendship.
Throughout much of the Christian tradition, writers have laid emphasis on the fact that friendship serves no obvious purpose and fulfills no utilitarian scheme. It is, as C. S. Lewis memorably put it, “unnecessary, like philosophy, like art, like the universe itself (for God did not need to create). It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things that give value to survival.” Often we can’t even point to any quantifiable “thing” that a friendship procures for us. Unlike marriage, friendship doesn’t bring us children. Unlike parenting, friendship doesn’t guarantee us a lineage. Unlike collegiality, friendship doesn’t secure our professional advancement. Unlike charitable giving, friendship doesn’t boost our ego. It carries its own end with it or in it; it has no other rationale beyond our enjoyment in our friend himself or herself. Montaigne may have put it best when he described his closest friendship in the wake of its dissolution with the friend’s death: “If you press me to tell why I loved him, I feel that this cannot be expressed, except by answering, Because it was he, because it was I.”
Perhaps here we come to the heart of why friendship, after long veneration in the pagan world (the ancient Greeks and Romans extolled friendship as much or more than any culture before or since), was eventually Christianized. Understood like this, friendship mirrors the kind of love that we most associate with divine grace — the kind of love that is causeless, excessive, and profligate, the kind of love that has no rhyme or reason for its perpetuation other than the fact that it is love.
One of the centermost doctrines of Christian faith is that God’s love in creation and redemption seeks no return from us in the form of a counter gift. God made the world for the hell of it, as Terry Eagleton once quipped, out of sheer exuberance and aesthetic delight. And God withheld nothing in the mission to save humanity, uniting himself to humanity indissolubly in the Incarnation and giving up his life in death, even the most ignominious and torturous sort of death, and pouring himself out in tongues of fire in Jerusalem at Pentecost. There was, as Eagleton says laconically, “nothing in it for him.” Nothing, that is, other than God’s desire to be in communion with us.
Perhaps this is at the heart of why Christians came to celebrate it. Friendship is a token or participation in that divine lavishness. When I travel overseas to visit a friend, spending more money than I have on plane fare and gifts that I’ve carefully selected in light of the little hobbies and secret interests of my friend that I am lucky enough to know about, I’m doing so not in order to guarantee a specific response or to meet a need. I’m doing these things, rather, because I like my friend, because I hope to go on knowing him and loving him for years to come, because his company gives me pleasure. In friendship, I’m not looking for my friend to achieve something on my behalf or award me with some hoped-for prize, nor am I looking to supply some lack in him. Rather, I’m looking to be in his presence because he is someone whose presence I enjoy. In these ways, among others, friendship is perhaps a vestige or aftershock of the kind of love God displays in Christ.
Over the phone recently, a friend said to me, “Why do you think Jesus said what he said to his disciples in the Gospel of John: ‘I do not call you servants any longer … but I have called you friends’?”
I hesitated, unsure of where he was going.
“Surely it’s because they’re not his underlings; they’re not doing anything for him. They’re his equals. They’re his fellows. He loves them because he loves them.”
But then, am I setting up a false choice, as if the friend-as-burden-bearer were neatly separable from the friend-as-end-in-himself, as if the two ways of thinking about friendship never overlapped or intermingled? More pointedly, is what I’ve said so far suggesting that these two impulses — to look to a friend for comfort and support, on the one hand, and to enjoy a friend purely for the sake of the friendship itself, on the other hand — somehow represent two sides or poles of the experience of friendship, occasionally touching each other in some murky middle ground but also bouncing off one another like magnetized ends? I suspect I’ve skated too close to such a dichotomy and that this is yet another moment where Iris Murdoch’s counsel — “Better sometimes to remain confused” — is best heeded. Because one of the most striking things about the consolations of friendship — the consolations my friend Heather was groping for words to describe, the consolations I said I needed when I sat in Aidan’s living room — is that they are most consoling when they look less like charity and more like delight in each other’s presence, the kind of delight that can’t ever remain one-sided without distorting the friendship out of all recognition in the process.
What comforted me that night in Aidan’s living room wasn’t the thought that he would bail me out one day with a rent-free apartment or that he would make a standing dinner invitation so that I wouldn’t have to eat alone. What comforted, instead, was the hope that he liked me, that he wanted to know me better, that he wanted to go on having conversations over after-dinner drinks, just for the hell of it. If friendship really is an icon of the kind of love God demonstrated in the gift of the gospel, then we might have expected this sort of confusion. The comfort of the gospel is not that God will maintain his place in the heights and dispense gifts upon request; it is, rather, that God gives himself, that God shares God’s own life with us, ushering us into a relationship in which our delight in God is, as Lewis once wrote, an ingredient in God’s own happiness. Friendship, likewise, may be at its truest and best when the comfort it brings and the comfort it is, like two currents, fully merge.